DfID "evasive" on blame for St Helena airport "white elephant", say MPs
Public Accounts Committee says design of new airport for UK overseas territory failed to account for wind shear, and attacks Department for International Development over planning and accountability
MPs have laid into the Department for International Development for a "staggering" failure to account for the impact of high winds when funding a new airport on the island of St Helena.
DfID currently provides financial and technical assistance to St Helena, a small UK overseas territory in the South Atlantic which is home to around 4,100 people.
The department believed that giving the territory a new airport would help to boost its tourism industry and eventually reduce the amount of subsidy required by UK taxpayers.
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But a new report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee heavily criticises DfID's handling of the process to date, saying that wind shear on the island "precludes the airport from operating the planned commercial service", with just eight flights able to make use of the new facility between May and September 2016. DfID said it had taken "concrete" action to remedy the situation.
The PAC says the impact of wind conditions on the island should have been anticipated by the department, pointing out that Charles Darwin wrote about the island's high winds as early as 1836.
"We asked the department how, if Charles Darwin could have experienced and described the problem of wind shear on St Helena in 1836, it commissioned a £285.5m airport, paid for by the British taxpayer, without properly appreciating the danger of this effect," the MPs say.
"The result is a disaster: a commercial airport that is not fit for purpose, no credible plan to salvage value for money, and no clarity on exactly who is responsible for the whole sorry mess" – PAC chair Meg Hillier MP
The report also notes that DfiD was reliant on the expertise of external contractor Atkins in designing and building the airport, and says the department "did not commission an independent advisor or seek support from other departments with the necessary technical expertise to corroborate this source of advice".
DfID is, the committee adds, yet to determine the "extent or cost of the remedial action required to bring the airport into commercial use", with the department attacked for being "unwilling to tell us who was responsible" for oversight of the project until its own internal review is complete.
Launching the report, PAC chair Meg Hillier said that while the government had an obligation to support the UK's overseas territories, the "£285m white elephant" had not proven its worth.
"The failure to undertake robust due diligence on this project is truly appalling," she said. "I also have serious concerns about the airport’s business case, which was marginal at best."
Hillier added: "A more modest airport could have addressed the practical needs of the Saints. Scaling up the project may have made sense were it not done on the back of such unconvincing projections.
"The result is a disaster: a commercial airport that is not fit for purpose, no credible plan to salvage value for money, and no clarity on exactly who is responsible for the whole sorry mess."
"We will deliver on what we promised for the island and we will identify failures to ensure they are held to account, redressed and not repeated" – DfID spokesperson
A DfID spokesperson said the department was "already seeing the results" of "concrete actions" taken over the summer to learn lessons and improve the airport's operations.
“An external expert was brought in to review evidence of DFID’s actions while an independent panel has been tasked with finding a solution to challenges presented by wind shear," they added.
“Following this work the St Helena Government has now released a tender for air services for a three year period to provide the best possible air service for the island.
“18 flights have successfully landed so far – including three vital medevac flights.
“More flights are due next week. To uphold our duty to the island an extension of the Royal Mail Ship service will provide guaranteed access in the meantime.
“The secretary of state is clear: we will deliver on what we promised for the island and we will identify failures to ensure they are held to account, redressed and not repeated.”
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